by Nancy Degutis
It's been Bonnie Mosser's dream since childhood to make it into international competition. She almost did it in skiing, her passion as a teenager. This summer, at age 44, she will finally realize her dream when she represents the US, not on a pair of skis but on the back of her own horse.
The Unionville, PA woman showed enough talent in ski racing to make a national development team. But at age 22, she hung up her skis and turned to what she knew best -- horses. While she never let go of her hopes of representing the U.S., she had a late start and a lot of dues to pay. In early June she tromped the competition at the USEF CCI*** Spring Championships, her latest success in high level eventing. In mid-June she got the call from the U.S. Equestrian Federation notifying her of her inclusion on the US three-day eventing squad bound for the Pan Am Games in Rio de Janeiro in July.
"It was a matter of putting it all together at the right time," Mosser said.
She will be in the best of company, riding along with Olympic veterans Karen O'Connor, Stephen Bradley, Phillip Dutton, Mara Dean and Gina Miles. She will take her Merloch as her primary mount but also qualified Rebecca Polan's Close The Deal as her alternate should something happen to Merloch before the Games.
A self-proclaimed late comer into the world of top level three-day eventing, Mosser grew up on a small horse farm outside of East Aurora, NY, near Buffalo. A former pony club member, she showed hunters and jumpers, did equitation, and mixed in some western riding.
As a young adult, she was a working student of Denny Emerson. In 1997 she took two more big steps in her career. She began working for two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Phillip Dutton of West Grove, PA, and went advanced that autumn at the Fair Hill (Md.) International show.
After several years as one of Dutton's working students, she struck out on her own. She opened her own training barn, Point Above Farm, in Unionville, which attracted students and promising horses. Among them were Merloch (a horse she bought from one of her students), Close The Deal and her Jenga, a horse she rode to a solid finish in this spring's Rolex four-star event. She had nominated all three for the Games and did several selection trials with each, included the most recent, the Jersey Fresh CCI***/**.
She also offered to ride Jenga and Merloch this August in a test event in Hong Kong, where officials of the upcoming 2008 Olympics will learn how horses react to the area's heat and humidity. Competing in a different culture in a foreign venue "will be a very useful experience in my life," said Mosser. "And it's a big honor to be part of that."
She doesn't play favorites but it is easy to see she is proud of Merloch, better known as "Murry." The10-year-old New Zealand-bred carried her to a 48.7-point finish in the Jersey Fresh three-star, which gave Mosser the first of her two blue ribbons at the show. She also cornered the market on the blue rosette with Close The Deal in the two-star portion of the show.
Despite the heat and humidity that cloaked the cross country route at the Horse Park of New Jersey, where the show ran, Murry was one of six horses in the three-star division with no time or jumping faults in cross country. That put him in fourth overall as the 16.2 hand horse and Mosser went into the deciding round, stadium jumping. He left all the rails up while his rivals didn't and finished with a 48.7-point score for first.
She is proud of Murry, not only of his performance that weekend, but because the Thoroughbred proved to be the advanced horse she thought he was. She had found him "down under" for one of her students, Alex Davoyna. Mosser had gone to New Zealand just before the holidays last year on a horse hunting trip, looking for a prospect for herself. When she spotted Murry and sat on him, "I felt he was a very special horse for Alex (her student at the time). He has such a sensible mind and was talented." The teen's parents purchased the gray gelding, sight unseen, and Alex "was very successful with him," noted Mosser.
At that point Murry had done a one-star event with an adult amateur. However, Alex took him through the intermediate level, earning a Gold Medal when the two won the two-star event at the 2006 North American Young Riders championships. By then Murry was definitely a favorite of the Davoyna family. But when their daughter decided she was going away to college and wanted to move beyond horses in her life, they offered him for sale.
Murry was without a job for four months until Mosser "reminded Alex that I had asked for first dibs on him if he was put up for sale," said Mosser who took over Murry last autumn. Their first competition together was in February, 2007.
"There was some risk involved (in buying him), considering how much money you put on the horse," said Mosser, 44. "And then you don't know if he will go advanced." On the plus side, "He has been in our program for four years (with Alex). He's cool and knows his job."
He repaid Mosser's faith in him as she speedily moved him up the ladder. At the Fair Hill (MD) horse trials they won the intermediate class. Then she took him on to the advanced level before coming to New Jersey. She put him in an event to get him qualified for Jersey Fresh, but he almost sabotaged his chances. The gelding dropped four rails in stadium jumping. They were tacked onto the penalties he got for coming in over the time allowed on the cross country.
While the mistakes could have kept him out of Jersey Fresh—the very important Games selection trial--the qualifier show highlighted his weaknesses and gave her a chance to work on them.
"I was very disappointed because I am not one to have that many rails down in show jumping," recalled Mosser. So she went home and tried to rectify his shortcomings. She began with a show jumping lesson from Olympian Anne Kursinski at her New Jersey farm. After his double clear round in stadium at Jersey Fresh, she knew "it (the lesson with Kursinski) paid off. I knew he had it in him. It was just a matter of working it out," she said.
"I would say, coming into it (Jersey Fresh) my dressage was the weakest because I was focusing on the cross country and show jumping," said Mosser whose 46.3-point dressage score netted her third in that phase. "I was fortunate to come out of the test with such a good score. I have to thank Capt. Mark Phillips for assisting me with that."
Capt. Phillips, an English-born former eventer who now coaches the Americans, was at the show to work with the Pan Am candidates.
An added bonus came at the awards ceremony. Murry was judged the fittest horse and the best turned-out horse in the jog for the three-star division. And the pair were presented with the 2007 Gladstone Trophy for the highest placed American rider
Mosser's other horse, Jenga, got a bye from cross country in the advanced trial. "How he ran cross country in the past meant he had nothing to prove. Plus he just came off of Rolex," pointed out Mosser. So she was given the choice of going cross country or skipping it at the Jersey show. After conferring with Capt. Philips, she opted to skip cross country but settled for doing a combined test of dressage and show jumping instead.
Jenga was a challenge to her when she bought the English Thoroughbred from Peter Green. What sealed the deal came when she sat on the then six-year-old horse. The 16.2 hand "J" was doing preliminary level events, meaning there was little chance of seeing how he handled the tougher requirements of the upper level. What convinced her to get him was "I really liked the feeling he gave me when he left the ground over the jumps."
Although "he is not a fancy mover and doesn't have a very big galloping stride, he does have a lot of power and scope. He also has a level head and is very workmanlike," Mosser said of the dark bay gelding.
A job offer too good to pass up last year left Rebecca Polan, Close The Deal's owner, without the time to ride. So Mosser got the job when she told Polan she would like to ride her "Bob," a Dutch warmblood/Thoroughbred son of Art Deco.
"Riding Bob was the best thing in my life," said Mosser. "It gave me another advanced horse."
He and Polan had been competing at the intermediate level, including an outing at the 2005 Radnor (Pa.) two-star. When Mosser took over she felt he could go advanced, and she rode the chestnut to third in the three-star at last year's Jersey Fresh. The twosome won this year's advanced division (47 points).
"He has been a work in progress. His dressage is his weakest point--some days he's good but on others he pulls out his little red head streak and isn't the best. But the jumping part, it's been easy for him. He never questioned any cross country fence, and the same with show jumping," she said.
"Now you can see why I like Jersey Fresh. Every time I go there I have been successful," she said with a wink.
The icing on the cake was the 13-year-old Bob also received the best horse award for the advanced division.
Mosser and Jenga were short listed, or eligible, to go to last year's World Equestrian Games in England. Mosser suggested to Polan that Bob should go along to get experience, and ran him at the three star in Blenheim (England) where the two finished 13th. Jenga was not selected for the WEG, so Mosser ran him in the four star at Burghley (England) where they were 11th.
Now that the long wait to see if they qualified for the Games is over, Mosser has just one outstanding problem. She is the only one on the team who does not own a pique (scarlet coat), which signifies the person wearing it has been in international competition.
"Hopefully the people at USEF will find one for me," she said.